Cooking up a new start
It was only three weeks into the Durham Tech culinary class and a dozen students were trying their hand at cooking, darting around steel tables and cutting boards in their rumpled chef’s whites.
Thursday night’s class lab takes the shape of an industrial kitchen at the Durham Rescue Mission, a nonprofit that helps and houses the homeless, and students search for the lost bottle of red pepper flakes or a bowl big enough for sweet potatoes.
Jeremy Priester picked apart sprigs of cilantro, chopping up the leaves to form a quarter-cup pile. He and his partner were creating breakfast burritos with sausage.
Priester, 44, calls this class his stepping stone. He’s a resident of TROSA, a long-term program that helps individuals recover from substance abuse, and he said the next step after a TROSA graduation is a Wake Tech associate degree.
Then, he said, he wants to become the chef on a Caribbean cruise line. The deal would be to work hard in the kitchen, then he’d get to relax when they reach port.
Priester is 17 months into the TROSA program - He said his stay stemmed from drinking too much. He’d wake up hung over. He was hanging with the wrong crowd. He has three beautiful girls who need their dad, he said.
He hasn’t had a drink in about a year and a half.
He has 14 years’ experience cooking, his specialty is in dishes such as chicken marsala, but he doesn’t have those skills on paper, he said. ServSafe food safety certification will be a start.
“It’s like my dream because I’ve wanted to do this for a while,” he said, “but something was getting in my way. Now nothing’s in my way and I can get it done.”
Christina, who didn’t want her last name used, has been a resident for nine months at the Durham Rescue Mission. She helps supervise the women’s center kitchen, making sure that food is served right at noon and 5 p.m. each day.
Thursday night, she was making a spinach and turkey quiche, even though she’s not partial to spinach.
“I love being there to help people through God’s work and being helped at the same time,” she said. “... We just all click really well and there’s friendly competition.”
Around the halfway point of class, Christina walked over and mentioned, grinning, that she had gotten her dish completed before everyone else.
“You know it’s going to be just as good as the picture was,” she said of her recipe.
Lenore Donaldson and her partner were making a potato and zucchini frittata, and they were trying to get a head start on peeling the potatoes.
Forty-nine-year-old Donaldson said she was laid off in December, after a 20-year career working in hotels such as The Carolina Inn and Washington Duke Inn. She’s also a three-time cancer survivor, having just finished treatment for breast cancer last year.
“I love to cook and I cook a lot,” she said, “but I love learning the right way to do things.”
Students just learned different knife cuts. With a flash of the blade, onions transformed into perfect stacks of little white squares.
This is the eighth culinary class taught by Durham Tech culinary instructor Betty Redwood. At the beginning of Thursday’s class, she calmly passed out turkey bacon, queso fresco and garlic. She fielded questions about seasoning and proper station cleaning.
Slow it down, she’d say to those chopping vegetables. You’ll cut your finger. To properly bake a pie crust, it has to reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees.
Stepping out of the kitchen for a moment, Redwood was almost breathless when she said, “I am in my zone. I love it.”
Before filling in as a last-minute instructor 8 years ago and then cementing her place at Durham Tech, she had her own catering business. She has worked in food service for decades, for big companies such as Sodexo and institutions such as N.C. Central University.
She’s the mama of the kitchen, and each class she nurtures is different. Some of these students have gotten in trouble. Many are starting over in their lives. She’ll watch everyone closely during their first week and then tailor the class to suit their personalities, their needs.
“I am so humbled, because you’re making a difference in somebody else’s life,” she said.
And in this kitchen, she added, “I came into my own.”